Advertisers must be the most resilient, patient and forgetful people who ever lived, if their ability to sit through the networks’ annual upfront presentations is any clue. The process is harder, alas, on those burdened with a sense of history.
The wider enthusiasm that surrounds the annual upfront is understandable. Sure, the networks aren’t what they used to be, but the hope of finding new zeitgeist-y hits springs eternal, and besides, with the economy’s improving, the food and parties are back.
What seems strange, though, is how little recognition there is – other than Jimmy Kimmel’s regular bite-the-hand-that-feeds-me stand-up shtick during ABC’s showcase – of the spotty track record associated with the chest-thumping that occurs. Yes, this is supposed to be about salesmanship and putting people in a mood to buy, but a little more transparency and less excess would go a long way.
With that in mind, here are seven mistakes networks make during their upfront presentations that ought to be officially retired – statements or actions that irritate the crowd, misread the room or seem destined to boomerang back at some later date. (And this doesn’t even include ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee saying how much he loves this show or that, overlooking his promiscuous devotion to canceled series in seasons past.)
7. DON’T OVERDO THE MUSICAL ACTS: Nobody in business attire is really eager to have a rap or rock artist yelling “Stand up and put your hands together!” at 11 o’clock in the morning. Moreover, the marquee value of your featured artist – unless you are airing a show like “Glee” – is generally in inverse proposition to the quality of that year’s development crop. The bigger the name, in other words, the more it feels like you want to deflect attention from the actual shows.
6. DON’T GO OVERBOARD BASHING THE OTHER GUYS: Playful jabs at the rival networks and their failures are fun – and quotable. Just be careful not to cross the line into looking mean or petty. Media folks, in particular, hate it when you start usurping our jobs.
5. STOP TALKING ABOUT TESTING: Saying something is “The highest-testing pilot we’ve ever had” only reminds us of all the other high-testing pilots that turned out to be surprisingly lousy and wound up getting canceled.
4. DO NOT BRING STARS ON STAGE WITHOUT A CLEAR EXIT STRATEGY: Everybody wants to see stars at these events, but it’s questionable how much people want to hear from them. Networks mess up here one of two ways: A) They give actors stilted dialogue to read, which is awkward; or B) they just let them wing it, which can be even more awkward. A parade of stars – silent but beautiful – or just having them stand up and wave from the audience (ditto), is the better way to go. Just promise that the buyers can chat them up at the party.
3. DO NOT PREVIEW EVERY SHOW YOU MIGHT ORDER. A lot can happen between now and September, much less next spring. So previewing midseason series that might never see the light of day – or could change significantly before they do – just muddies the water.
2. DON’T BRAG ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA. Talking about social media and other made-up-sounding new metrics and research (“It’s the year’s most Tweeted-about pilot!”) just sound like the dog ate your homework or that you’re really expecting a boost from your midterm grades, Dean Wormer.
1. DO NOT IGNORE AN OVER-ARCHING STRATEGY. Networks have gotten into the bad habit (with the notable exception of CBS) of acting like each new series is its own free-floating entity, which overlooks how similar everything appears to be when viewed in cut-down form adjacent to other presentations. What really helps is having a sense of an over-arching vision and how a new series fits into the network’s plans.
So good luck, network honchos. And on the plus side, if you violate any of these rules, most of you will have another shot at it next year.